What’s Going On With The Sun? The Northern Lights Are The Best In Years As ‘Space Weather’ Spikes

By Jamie Carter, Contributor
Northern lights are seen over forest tundra in the Murmansk Region, northwest Arctic Russia, in midwinter. The Murmansk Region is one of Russia's best places for seeing northern lights. Lev Fedoseyev/TASS (Photo by Lev Fedoseyev\TASS via Getty Images) Lev Fedoseyev/TASS

Solar Cycle 25 appears to be stronger than predicted—and it’s bringing with it some of the best displays of Northern Lights for years.

There have now been more sunspots than predicted for 15 straight months reports Spaceweather.com, with the monthly value at the end of December 2021 well over than twice the official forecast.

What does it all mean?

When talking about our Sun its spots are crucial. A sunspot is an area of intense magnetic activity on the surface of the Sun. It appears as a dark area on the solar disk. Sunspots look like this—the image is from earlier today:

An image of sunspots on the Sun as seen today by the NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). NASA/SWPC

Sunspots are indicative of solar activity—the Sun producing more electrons and protons—which birth solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). Although sunspots seem like tiny specks, they can be colossal in size. 

Incredibly, sunspots have been counted each day since 1838. That’s allowed solar scientists to reveal a repeating pattern in the wax and wane of activity on the Sun’s surface. That’s called the solar cycle

There are more sunspots on the Sun’s surface right now than at any time for the last five years. The latest count for the end of December was 67. Compare that to the expected value of just 26.

Furthermore, Spaceweather.com reports that geomagnetic activity has nearly tripled since December 2019 with 25 days in 2021 featuring at least a minor geomagnetic storm compared to just nine days in 2020.

The result has been more space weather—charged particles from the Sun—headed in the direction of Earth with stronger and more frequent displays of aurora. That’s because the more charged-up the solar wind headed towards Earth, the brighter and more frequent are displays of aurorae.

A huge coronal mass ejection (CME) this morning as seen by NASA's Large Angle and Spectrometric COronagraph (LASCO) instrument on the joint NASA/ESA SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) spacecraft. NASA/SWPC

However, the more extreme space weather—as storms of high-energy particles—expected as the Sun waxes to “solar maximum” in 2025 could affect communication networks, satellites, power distribution networks, aviation and astronauts.

We’re in a new solar cycle and the Sun is waxing towards “solar maximum” probably in July 2025. Solar maximum is a peak in the Sun’s roughly 11 years solar cycle when the most sunspots are seen. Solar minimum is the trough when the fewest sunspots are observed.

Although sunspot numbers on the Sun right now are higher than expected by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), physicists at the University of Warwick and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) predict that solar cycle 25 will be one the top few ever observed.

If that’s what comes to pass then it could lend more evidence to their new “solar clock” theory that the Sun has overlapping 22-year magnetic cycles that interact to produce the 11-year solar cycle.

One day perhaps solar physicists will be able to predict the number of sunspots in advance—and thus the chances of both problematic space weather and beautiful displays of aurora—but for now we get just a few days warning.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.


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